Watching Leonard Cohen

16 November 2008

There were several surprises in watching Leonard Cohen at the O2 this week. The first was the humour – apparently well-scripted, according to one reviewer, but nonetheless funny for that. The second was the band – nine-strong – which brought the songs richly to life. And the third was his voice, which seems to be better at 73 than it was when he was younger.

I’ve never been a huge Cohen fan; I wasn’t quite depressed enough as an adolescent, and the last record I sat down and listened to all the way through was probably Death of A Ladies Man. For a while I liked his novels more than his music (and thought, against the grain of general opinion, The Favourite Game better than Beautiful Losers). But the songs creep in whether you’re listening or not – whether it’s Hallelujah (covered by Jeff Buckley and quite a few others), or I’m Your Man, or First I’ll Take Manhattan. Hearing him play for most of three hours you realise what a great back catalogue he has, and (unlike, say, the Rolling Stones) how he’s kept adding fine songs to it down the years. Which is just as well, since his current tour, after a long gap, was planned after he was defrauded by his manager.

There were some references to his age. Introducing The Tower of Song, he talked about not having toured for 14 years, when “I was young then and had crazy ideas”. And the first verse of The Tower of Song, of course, is about ageing.

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the tower of song.

The band was an interesting mix. Drums, bass, guitar and organ (not keyboards). Three women singers, including Cohen’s long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson. And then a wind player, Dino Soldo, moving between sax, clarinet, and harmonica, and a Spanish acoustic guitarist, the phenomenally accomplished Javier Mas. The overall effect was of Dylan’s Street Legal period, with Mas’ guitar producing the lightness and texture provided then by David Mansfield‘s violin and mandolin.

Robinson had a solo song, and revealed herself to have a wonderful rich soul/gospel voice. Cohen’s own voice – which I thought so limited that it was saved only by his lyrics when he was younger – had more range, and far greater timbre. It made me wonder if as well as co-writing a lot of his more recent songs Robinson had given him some voice coaching as well.

I’m not going to labour the humour (you probably had to be there) but there was also some seriousness as well. Many artists would have problems reminding their audiences – sitting in their £60+ seats in the O2 – of how privileged they were, as he did before Anthem (“Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering”). But he got a round of applause for it. And finally, the sequencing of the songs had the sure touch of a DJ, no doubt down to the leader and arranger Roscoe Beck. Cohen skipped off the stage at the end – and a few times before then, ahead of encores and so on. He deserved to – this certainly wasn’t the performance of a man going through the motions for his pension fund.

And one last note – I can’t remember the last time I saw so much headgear (high class, all of it) on one stage at a concert. Cohen set the tone with his fedora, but the others – including the Webb Sisters, on backing vocals – followed with verve.

The photograph is from the website photography.ca – used with thanks.

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